Book Review: The Shack By William (Paul) Young

May 29, 2008 by  
Filed under Book and Movie Reviews

By Donald James Parker  

There is a phenomenon sweeping the planet in the form of a little book with the picture of a dilapidated building on the cover. The Shack is number one in three categories (including Christian fiction) on the Amazon sales charts, number two at Barnes and Noble, and number fourteen on the USA Today list of books.  Not too shabby. The book, which today is number eleven overall on the Yahoo sales chart, wasn't even written for publication but rather was created by a dad for his kids to read. How it ended up as the talk of a big chunk of the populace without Oprah's recommendation is a fairly significant mystery. Over 300,000 copies have been sold already and nobody I know has even heard of the book.

So far there are 370 reviews on Amazon. One has to wonder why 370 people have expended their precious time to vocalize their opinion about the contents of a small novel by a no-name author. Do they think someone is going to actually read through 370 reviews and see theirs? In some cases they will be seen. Those who rate the book with one star are going to get an audience. I have to confess I went out and read those slams against this piece of literature just to find out what the naysayers were saying. Normally I hate one star reviews, which to me simply show the bias of the reviewer. In the case of this book, many are disputing the validity of the theology being espoused by the author.

One of the people quoted on the book cover said this book has the potential to impact the world in a manner similar to Pilgrim's Progress.  That would be no small feat if the claim were true. I couldn't pass up the chance to find out what the hullabaloo was all about, so I bought a copy. First of all, I was somewhat surprised by the quality of the writing of this self-avowed non-professional. Mr. Young writes very lucid, and at times, poetical prose. Some of the reviews criticized him for poor writing (one guy's byline being: The Shack – where bad writing meets bad theology).

I must say I raised my eyebrows a few times over the theology that he advocates, mostly through the characters of Papa (God the Father), Jesus and the Holy Spirit (Sarayu, who is portrayed by a woman). Ironically, Papa took the form of a black woman. There seems to be a concerted effort by the author to dissuade us from hanging on to stereotypical visions of God being a white male. In fact, a mantra humming throughout the text is that the things you learned in Sunday school about God are not necessarily true. I'm cool with that – to a certain extent. Like scientists trying to draw a picture of how life originated and developed on earth, theologians trying to fill in the gaps of knowledge about God also exercise their imagination. There's a lot of wiggle room there. The Bible says we're made in God's image, but it also says when we see Him, we will see Him as He is. My interpretation is that God doesn't look like a human. The image he created us in was spiritual, not physical, so God is not going to be black, white, red, brown, or yellow (see Ecclesiastes 12:7). There is no need for gender in Heaven as well since the primary purpose of male and female was to populate the earth. The author does point that out, and besides, this is just a novel, so we can allow the author some literary license here to play some what-if games. It's not like he's writing, "And thus saith the Lord." The use of the term heresy here (which some have applied) seems to me to be excessive in nature.

I found a few things I considered issues. One is the description of evil as being simply man seeking his independence from God's being. The definition given of evil is the absence of God as opposed to being an entity of its own, the same way darkness is the absence of light as opposed to a tangible entity in itself. That is an interesting school of thought, but I don't think it parallels reality. Jesus talked about Satan as an actual entity who embodies evil.  But maybe I'm wrong.  The labeling of responsibility and expectations as bad things was rather interesting. It was pointed out that the word responsibility does not appear in the Bible. That is true of the King James version.  However, I do find a section in Exodus with ten responsibilities listed. In another passage, Jesus said that he who keeps and teaches the commandments to other men will be blessed (see Matthew 5:19).  Young is not going to win any brownie points according to that verse as far as teaching obedience of the commandments.  There is a nice emphasis on forgiveness with a very poignant and realistic passage where Mack wrestles with issue of forgiving someone who has caused him great anguish.  This may be the highlight of the book.

No doubt there are many evangelical Christians who squirm when Papa says that he is not a Christian and not everybody who enters the gates of Heaven will be one.  The members of the Trinity try to convince the hero that the biggest problem with man is his desire to be independent. If he would only embrace God and relate instead of trying to follow rules, which are a manifestation of humans' attempts to find independence, life would be good. We're God's kids. It's okay to color outside the lines.  There is truth in that, but I refer back to Matthew 5:19.  How do we incorporate those words into this concept?  That topic is worthy of a whole book.  People have their own opinions, but if you don't mind, I'll take my blessing by telling you the commandments are important.

Some reviewers accused Mr. Young of preaching universal salvation.  Some said they could not finish the book (perhaps threw it across the room). It's always interesting to me, especially since now I'm in the business of critiquing the blood, sweat, and tears of other humans, how cruel some people can be. I've seen best selling authors hacked to shreds by reviewers who seemed to be barely treading the water of literacy. I guess I have to fall back on some wisdom imparted by my mother: "just consider the source." I'm not here to crucify this work or its author. My first inclination would be to say the author is a little far out and radical. That doesn't necessarily make him wrong. Jesus was considered radical in his day as well.

Should you read it?  I think so.  Is it worthy of all the hype?  Probably not.  Michael W. Smith and Wynona Judd (among others) are touting the benefits of this story. Smith said the book was the most absorbing work of fiction he has read in years. Judd said the story has blown the doors wide open to her soul. For me the bottom line is this: if this book helps you to love God and love your fellow man, it is of value.  I think for many people this will be the case as readers see that the only prudent thing to do is submit themselves as a living sacrifice to the creator of the Universe.  

About the Reviewer:  Donald James Parker is a novelist and computer programmer who resides in Puyallup, Washington.  Check out his website at


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